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Review: Putting Words in Your Mouth (Roundhouse)

Scottee's latest piece at the Roundhouse looks at whether tolerance can extend to intolerance

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Travis Alabanza in Putting Words in Your Mouth
© Holly Revell

Let's start with some letters: UKIP LGBT. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, the group exists. It has a slogan – 'Out and Proud' – and last year, its members were banned from marching under its banner at Pride – an act of exclusion at a public demonstration of inclusivity. This is the territory Scottee dives into – brilliantly – in Putting Words in Your Mouth.

Its premise is simple. Three performers of colour lip-sync along to three right-wing interviewees – some of them, quite far right. Everyone we see and hear from is gay: three gay people standing in for three others. Or not: three black Brits mouthing along to nationalist statements. The premise might be simple. The experience is not.

For starters, you don't see it coming. Kicking off with coming out stories – and everybody loves a coming out story – Scottee predisposes us to sympathise with his interviewees. One talks of being bullied at school; another of trying to "pray the gay away." Gradually, they come to own their individual identities, each taking steps – more or less tentatively – into drag and finding some freedom there.

This is, however, a shotgun to identity politics. The swerve into politics is sudden and severe – and not entirely unreasonable. Homophobia comes in different forms – some ignorant, some bigoted, some religious, some cultural. Where the left distinguishes, the right would treat it all the same and these three interviewees demand tolerance above all else. They insist on it – will not tolerate anything else.

It is the great paradox of our times: Can tolerance extend to intolerance? If so, how? Scottee is following DV8 into the question; shows like To Be Straight With You and Can We Talk About This.

Travis Alabanza, Lasana Shabazz and Jamal Gerald in Putting Words in Your Mouth
© Holly Revell

Scottee has done something vital. He acknowledges a set of opinions that exist without simply condoning or condemning. Rather than giving them a platform, he puts them in a petri-dish; gives them voice without giving them free reign. We can ill afford to ignore bigotry today, but, being toxic, being contagious, it must be handled with care. His form offers that distance. Lip-syncing is always ludicrous. In detaching speech from speaker – a strange, disconcerting effect – it becomes cartoonish; over-expressive. To lip-sync is to lampoon – and Scottee's performers (Lasana Shabazz, Travis Alabanza, Jamal Gerald) do so with relish. They purse their lips with distaste, roll their eyes in scorn and twist statements into sour sneers. The emotions behind reasoned argument – the suspicion, the superiority, the disdain – rise to the surface.

As they perform, the three drag up: black bobs, red lippy, white rosettes. Off their elbows, glossy black hangbags hang – Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. It is disturbing and disarming: a uniform queerness – which is, perhaps, not queerness at all. It catches the danger of the alt-right: it is age-old authoritarianism dressed in contemporary clothing. Painted behind them, in block capitals, is the word ‘TOLERANCE!' It is an absolute command.

It is up to us to reconcile all this. We talk a lot about the freedom of theatre – the way it lets us pick our own path through, think our own thoughts and make our own assocations – but it has another strength. It can pin you to a chair and force you to pay attention, no matter how uncomfortable.

Putting Words In Your Mouth is a short, sharp squirm of a show. It is theatre as a stomach knot; a big fat finger in a big open wound. It takes a shotgun to identity politics and challenges the left to repair the damage – if, indeed, it can.

Putting Words in Your Mouth runs at the Roundhouse until 3 December